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The Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter

Volume 10 No. 4

10 April 2011

"I applaud the Templeton Foundation for choosing such a distinguished scientific leader to receive its biggest award." --Chris Mooney

In this issue

What's New?

New entries added to the Skeptic's Dictionary: vibrational medicine, sealed envelope tricks, kinergetics, and two Spanish translations: dieta alcalina and negacionismo del SIDA.

The SD app for the iPhone has been updated.

New Skeptimedia posts: Some questions for a mega lottery winner, The Skeptically-prone Personality, Anti-vaccine propaganda from CBS, and Templeton Prize Rekindles Science/Religion Debate.

New What's the harm? posts: Mother kills 3-year-old daughter in exorcism attempt, Exorcism death of 3-year-old, and In Tanzania people are dying to get a dose of the witchdoctor/pastor "miracle cure."

New reader comments: qigong, EVP, and A Course in Miracles.

Revised Skeptic's Dictionary entries: fantasy-prone personality, cognitive dissonance, and massage therapy.

Many files were updated. A complete list with links to the updates may be found at www.skepdic.com/updates.html.

Atheist Scientists weigh in on the Templeton Prize

"Martin J. Rees, a theoretical astrophysicist whose profound insightsMartin Rees on the cosmos have provoked vital questions that speak to humanity’s highest hopes and worst fears, has won the 2011 Templeton Prize. Rees ... has spent decades investigating the implications of the big bang, the nature of black holes, events during the so-called ‘dark age’ of the early universe, and the mysterious explosions from galaxy centers known as gamma ray bursters. In turn, the 'big questions' he raises – such as 'How large is physical reality?' – are reshaping crucial philosophical and theological considerations that strike at the core of life, fostering the spiritual progress that the Templeton Prize has long sought to recognize." So reads the press release from the Templeton Foundation.

Rees, an atheist, may not have intended to foster "spiritual progress" (whatever that might mean) or reshape "theological considerations that strike at the core of life" (whatever that might mean), but intentions don't seem to matter to the Templeton Foundation.

"For affirming life’s spiritual dimension, Martin Rees—master of Trinity College at the University of Cambridge, astronomer royal, and a member of the House of Lords—was...named the winner of this year’s Templeton Prize, given to an individual who entices society to think about big questions." So reads the news report from the Chronicle of Higher Education. What in the world does it mean for an atheist who wonders about the size of the material universe 'to affirm life's spiritual dimension'? It would be lovely if a scientist could "entice society" to think about anything, but I wonder what the evidence is that Rees has touched many of the folks on the Clapham omnibus.

"In an appreciation of work bridging science and philosophy—or a canny attempt to buy credibility, depending on whom you ask—the controversial Templeton Foundation has awarded its $1.6 million annual prize to an agnostic: astrophysicist and former Royal Society President Martin Rees." So reads the report from the AAAS's Science Insider. The American Association for the Advancement of Science might be little more sensitive to the charges of being controversial and of buying credibility, since its credibility and integrity were challenged by atheist scientist Jerry Coyne for its "selling out to Christians."

Nobody should question Rees's scientific credentials. He's authored more than 500 research papers and has made important contributions to the origin of cosmic microwave background radiation, galaxy formation, and the concept of "multiverses." The atheist scientists who question the motives of the Templeton Foundation don't disagree that Rees is a first-rate scientist. Those who are upset with the award think that ... well, let them tell you what they think:

PZ Myers, atheist, science and anti-theist blogger, and outspoken critic of "accommodationism" (the notion that science and religion can co-exist in harmony), describes Rees as someone who sucks up to the Church of England and who detests vocal atheists. (Rees attends chapel services, loves listening to the choir, and considers his attraction to Anglican church services a matter of cultural heritage. I think it would be fair to say that Rees has an aesthetic attraction to Anglican rituals and services. He says he accepts no religious dogma.)

Professor Harry Kroto, who won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1996, said: "There's a distinct feeling in the research community that Templeton just gives the award to the most senior scientists they can find who's willing to say something nice about religion." Kroto, a colleague of Rees in Britain's leading scientific institution, the Royal Society, told The Times: "This news is really bad for the Royal Society, bad for the UK — a basically secular country." The prize uses money to imply that it has obtained some sort of Nobel-like consensus from scientists on the science-religion issue. "Yet nine out of ten eminent scientists are atheist-freethinkers for whom science is primarily about the reliable determination of truth." (Note: The Templeton Foundation makes no claim to being a scientific society, nor does it try to deceive the public into thinking its choice was made by consulting scientists, eminent or otherwise.)

Richard Roberts, who won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1993, said Rees could not have accepted the prize while he was president of the Royal Society. Rees's 5-year term ended last year. "There would have been an uproar," Roberts said. "Even to take it now, when he has only just stepped down as president, I think it's terrible. The Templeton Foundation is only interested in spreading religion and trying to make Christianity more acceptable." (What can you say about someone who criticizes an organization for trying to make Christianity more acceptable by giving an award to an atheist who admits he doesn't accept Christian dogma and goes to church for the enjoyment he gets out of the music and the architecture?)

Jerry Coyne, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago, said the Templeton Foundation is "sneakier than the creationists" by introducing the idea of faith into a discipline where faith is anathema. "Religion is based on dogma and belief, whereas science is based on doubt and questioning. In religion, faith is a virtue. In science, faith is a vice," he said. According to Coyne, Templeton "wants to make faith a virtue." He thinks that Rees, as a nonbelieving scientist, should have refused the prize and that this year's award is just Templeton's latest attempt to transmute money into credibility. "This just shows how far the Templeton Foundation has its tentacles into the scientific establishment," he said. "[Rees] is a smart choice for Templeton: he's highly respected, accomplished, and not a crackpot. It was a poor choice for Rees [to accept the prize and the loot]." Of Rees's bringing cosmology to bear on philosophy, Coyne says, "He's mistaken: religion and science are separate domains. If there's no conflict between science and religion, why do I still deal with creationists?" (Note: Rees doesn't say there is no conflict between science and all religious beliefs. There are some beliefs, fundamentalist literalism for example, that cannot be reconciled with science. Creationists are not representative of all religions or religious beliefs. Rees has said: "I would support peaceful co-existence between religion and science because they concern different domains. Anyone who takes theology seriously knows that it's not a matter of using it to explain things that scientists are mystified by." Dan Jones of the Guardian raises a few objections to Coyne's claims.)

"That will look great on Templeton's CV. Not so good on Martin's," said Richard Dawkins, who once called Rees a "compliant quisling" (a term usually reserved for fascist and Nazi collaborators) for his accommodationism.

The philosopher Anthony Grayling, of Birkbeck College, London, also has misgivings about the aims of the Templeton Foundation, which, he believes, should not pretend that questions of religion are on the same level as those of science. "I cannot agree with the Templeton Foundation's project of trying to make religion respectable by conflating it with science; this is like mixing astrology with astronomy or voodoo with medical research," he said. (Claiming that the work of a cosmologist raises questions for those investigating "spiritual" or "theological" issues seems trivially true, but I fail to see how it conflates religion and science or makes religion respectable in any way.)

I've argued elsewhere that I understand why purely scientific organizations like the Physical Society or the Chemical Society should limit their goals to science and leave philosophy to others. But I don't understand why other societies shouldn't form and promote both science and religion if that is their choice.

Now let's hear from those who support the award to Rees. First, here's what the person who nominated him had to say:

"He's an observant member of his tribe," University of California, Irvine, astrophysicist Virginia Trimble, who nominated Rees for the prize, told Science Insider, adding that although she is a "third-generation atheist," religion at least encourages its members to take life seriously. "So few people these days take anything seriously. That, I think, is not healthy. Scientific endeavor is a serious activity."

I agree that, for the most part, scientific endeavor is a serious activity, but what does that have to do with this award? Even if it's true that Rees, by example, encourages the folks on the Clapham omnibus to take life seriously, that in itself wouldn't be much of an incentive to nominate Rees over thousands of other scientists. Trimble's claim about religion, even if it's true, is completely irrelevant, since Rees isn't being awarded anything for his religious activity. Did she really nominate him because he's a scientist who enjoys listening to the choir and appreciates church art and architecture even if he finds its dogma uninviting? I could go on for days about some of the other things that religion encourages, but what would be the point? Anyway, if this is all it takes to get a nomination taken seriously by the Templeton Prize committee, then one can safely say that this is the least prestigious and most lucrative award in the world.

Another person who recommended Rees for the award was Robert Williams.

Williams told physicsworld.com that, although Rees does not explicitly write about religion, he does touch on the same important themes of origins and development of the universe through natural processes, which are at the core of the foundation of many religions. "I consider it very forward thinking of the Templeton Foundation to acknowledge, through this award to Martin, the importance of carrying on these discussions in less directly religious language and context, as opposed to the more traditional manner of addressing these fundamental questions of 'How did we get here?' as a by-product of divine intervention," he says.

To which I can only say: WTF? Is this Robert Williams fellow really saying that it is forward looking of the Templeton folks to acknowledge that naturalistic and scientific approaches to cosmology beat the hell out those religious myths? By not awarding the prize to some theologian who can prattle on for 666 pages about the Being Beyond Being and Ground of All that Is that it is and that it is as it is, the Templeton folks have shown foresight? Who knew?

Before hearing from Rees himself, let's hear from John Templeton Jr. himself (from the Templeton Prize website):

"The questions Lord Rees raises have an impact far beyond the simple assertion of facts, opening wider vistas than any telescope ever could," says John Templeton Jr., president and chairman of the Templeton Foundation, in a statement. "By peering into the farthest reaches of the galaxies, Martin Rees has opened a window on our very humanity, inviting everyone to wrestle with the most fundamental questions of our nature and existence."

I don't know about you but this peering into faraway galaxies and universes beyond our own just makes me feel like Alice getting smaller and smaller. Humanity becomes infinitely insignificant on such considerations, yet at the same time it is enthralling that we can even think such thoughts. Also, there is nothing like an open window to stick your telescope out of to get a better view of the vast vistas on the horizon. I guess the bottom line is that Rees's work makes you think and wonder. These days, apparently, that counts as "spiritual progress."

Rees seems to be taking this all in stride. Well, why wouldn't he? He's had an illustrious career and he's about to pocket £1 million for doing nothing. Why should he care what a few noble laureates, writers, and bloggers think?

Rees has called Dawkins et al. "professional atheists" and has criticized them for their confrontational stance against religion. The gnu atheists, according to Rees, want to force people to choose: science or religion. Rees chooses science and although he doesn't choose religion, he doesn't think all religions or religious beliefs are inimical to science.

In his acceptance speech, Rees said, "Our planet has existed for 45 million centuries, but this is the first [time] in its history where one species—ours—has Earth's future in its hands, and could jeopardize not only itself, but life's immense potential." That is why, he continued, over the past decade he has become "more engaged with issues of science policy and ethics, and global problems generally." Elaborating, Rees told Physics Today that the two main threats to the planet are "that there are more of us, and we are collectively having more impact on the biosphere," and "because individuals are more empowered by technology, we as a society are more vulnerable to small groups of people. Those are the difficulties of governance we will have to contend with."

To Rees, his work on the origin of the cosmos opens more important questions about humanity than speculation about the divine or the supernatural. "Some people might surmise that intellectual immersion in vast expanses of space and time would render cosmologists serene and uncaring about what happens next year, next week, or tomorrow," he said at a news conference. "But…even in a perspective extending billions of years into the future, as well as into the past, this century may be a defining moment." He told Science that he believes scientists have a responsibility to consider the political and ethical implications of their work and that philosophy and ethics hold an important place in scientific inquiry. (He doesn't seem to think that religion has been much help in these endeavors to consider the political and ethical implications of science.)

Rees says he will not start writing about science and religion now that he has won the prize. I suppose he'll leave such writing up to the likes of Dawkins et al. About the only nasty thing I can say about Rees is that he said something very nasty about Stephen Hawking's comments about there being no need to bring in the existence of God to explain the universe. Said Rees: "Stephen Hawking is a remarkable person whom I've known for 40 years and for that reason any oracular statement he makes gets exaggerated publicly. I know Stephen Hawking well enough to know that he has read very little philosophy and even less theology, so I don't think we should attach any weight to his views on this topic." I've studied philosophy, especially epistemology and philosophy of religion, for over 40 years and I can tell you that all you need is about five minutes instruction in the logic of explanations to know that the universe's existence and nature can be explained with or without reference to a creator. Studying the subject for 40 years won't give you any more authority on the topic.

For those atheist scientists who deplore the award and Rees for accepting it, consider that it could be worse: remember the Nobel committee gave the peace prize to Barack Obama and the prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1949 to António Egas Moniz for his discovery of the therapeutic value of lobotomies. The Templeton Prize, like the Pigasus Prizes and the Paranormal Prize of the JREF, is aimed at getting attention, but unlike the JREF prizes it is also aimed at getting prestige by aligning itself with someone prestigious. The Templeton Prize is sort of like an ad for a magical rubber band worn by a famous professional golfer or basketball player.

I think the Templeton Prize will remain the least prestigious and most lucrative award until the Koch brothers create the Freedom and Democracy Prize worth $1 billion and award it to someone like Pat Robertson, Billy Graham, Sarah Palin, or Newt Gingrich. The Koch brothers use their enormous wealth in an effort to destroy the opposition. They don't have opponents in the Democrats, unions, and defenders of government regulations; they have enemies. I digress, but it's sort of a segue into the next item.

update: Prize in the sky: The Templeton Foundation rewards "spiritual progress," but what the heck is that? By John Horgan Scientific American "What bothers me most about the Templeton Foundation is that it promotes a view of science and religion—or "spirituality," to use the term it favors—as roughly equivalent. Consider this e-mail that Jack Templeton sent me last summer soliciting nominations for the Templeton Prize. He wrote: 'The Templeton Prize parallels growing attention to the idea that progress in spiritual information is just as feasible as progress in the sciences.' First of all, the Templeton Foundation has artificially created the 'growing attention' to which Jack refers with enormous infusions of cash into science and other scholarly fields."

What's an Atheist to do? Vote for a Democrat, a Libertarian, anything but a Republican

It's not that Democrats, Libertarians, etc. aren't religious. It's that too many Republicans treat the non-religious as second-class citizens and want to turn the nation into a theocracy. Listen:

Newt Gingrich: "I have two grandchildren: Maggie is 11; Robert is 9. I am convinced that if we do not decisively win the struggle over the nature of America, by the time they're my age they will be in a secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists and with no understanding of what it once meant to be an American."

Mitt Romney: "Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom. Freedom opens the windows of the soul so that man can discover his most profound beliefs and commune with God. Freedom and religion endure together, or perish alone....[I]n recent years, the notion of the separation of church and state has been taken by some well beyond its original meaning....It is as if they are intent on establishing a new religion in America – the religion of secularism. They are wrong."*

Sarah Palin: "...hearing any leader declare that America isn't a Christian nation and poking an ally like Israel in the eye, it's mind-boggling...."

Michele Bachmann: U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) has announced that she plans to hold classes on the Constitution for new members of Congress – and she wants them taught by David Barton, a notorious Religious Right historical revisionist. Barton, a Texas resident who runs an outfit called WallBuilders, argues that the United States was founded to be a “Christian nation” and that church-state separation is a myth.* [update: Ed Brayton has more on Barton and Congressman Randy Forbes. See also Liars For Jesus: The Religious Right's Alternate Version of American History Vol. 1 by Chris Rodda.]

Mike Huckabee: "If integrity and character are divorced from God, they don't make sense." "I almost wish that there would be, like, a simultaneous telecast, and all Americans would be forced — forced at gunpoint no less — to listen to every David Barton message, and I think our country would be better for it. I wish it’d happen."

Tim Pawlenty: “We need to be a country that turns toward God. Not a country that turns away from God.” "We have, as a country, a founding perspective that we’re founded under God; our founding documents reference and acknowledge God, and acknowledge that our rights and privileges come from our Creator."

Barack Obama: “For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus — and nonbelievers.”

I'm not the only one who thinks Republicans are a danger to the well-being of America.

....today Republicans at all levels of government across the country are the primary force behind legislation which would: * Undermine the teaching of evolution and promote the teaching of creationism * Criminalize abortion in as many cases as possible, if not in all cases * Provide funding to religious groups that discriminate on the basis of religion * Provide funding for religious and theological training, as with ministers or priests * Establish prison rehabilitation programs that emphasize fundamentalist Christianity * Have the government endorse the Ten Commandments * Use government power to give a privileged status to Christianity and Christian beliefs.

For more on the right wing of the Republican party's attempt to turn America into a theocracy, see Theocracy Watch.

I know there are atheist Republicans and I ask them to consider switching to the Libertarian Party before writing to tell me what an idiot I am and how they're canceling their subscription to the newsletter. The Libertarians probably share the atheist Republicans' views on regulation of the economy and social programs, but they have more enlightened views on church/state relations, regulation of private sexual behavior, and the contribution made to the country and the armed forces by people of no religious faith.

update Republicans v secular America With blatant disregard for the first amendment, Republicans' intolerance of US secularism means things are turning ugly

"If you're part of secular America – that is, if you're an atheist, an agnostic, a religious liberal or even a mainstream believer who thinks religion should be kept out of politics and vice-versa – then you should be very afraid of what the Republican party has in store for you in 2012." [/update]

reader comments

Dear Mr. Carroll,

I’m not going to tell you that you are an idiot because of your unhealthy obsession with what you call the “Religious Right” and your goofy fear of the coming Theocratic States of America …and I’m not going to join the Libertarian Party. 

I am an atheist who votes mostly Republican for two reasons, neither of them having anything to do with religion, or a fear thereof.  First, I am not a member of any of the special interest groups which comprise the Democratic Party coalition: labor unions, radical environmentalists, extreme feminists, trial lawyers (although I am a lawyer), professional civil rights demagogues, etc. Second, I believe in liberty above all, with proper safeguards, and I cannot support the unending expansion of state power which is the fundamental proposition of the Democratic Party in America today.

I do think you are missing the larger picture with your obsessive focus on those Republicans who are religious, and their fear (completely unfounded, I agree) that government in the US is “anti-Christian” (the ridiculous “war on Christmas”, etc.). 

If you love freedom from religion as much as you suggest, you must then also love freedom from other forms of control over the mind of men, such as an all-powerful state.  Yet you apparently vote Democratic, which I see as a paradox.

I am a great fan of your emails and website, but would it be possible, just a tad, for you to back off of your political proselytizing?  It’s unseemly, and makes me uncomfortable in your presence. 

Thanks for listening.

Tim Watson

reply: Obviously we disagree about the danger to our country from the religious right. We also disagree about the Democratic Party having the "unending expansion of state power" as one of their fundamental goals. If I thought that way I'd be vigorously opposing the Democratic Party whether my doing so would be deemed unseemly or no. Both parties share blame for the so-called Patriot Act, which expanded government power to limit liberty as few peacetime acts ever have. And both parties share blame or credit for the recent economic acts that bailed out corporations and banks. Whether those acts will lead to a more vigorous capitalism remains to be seen. You and many Republicans may oppose what is disdainfully referred to as Obamacare, but characterizing the new health reforms as "socialist" is just poisoning the well. We are not moving toward socialism but toward social reform, and the direction we are moving is one that I see as liberating for many millions of Americans.

I haven't noticed any reduction in my liberty since Obama was elected. I agree, however, that he is not doing much to unburden us from the restrictions laid on us by the Bush administration. We're still torturing prisoners and holding them without charges. We still run Gitmo. We're still involved in two wars. The economy is still a mess.

I don't fear labor unions as much as I fear the Koch brothers and wealthy corporations. I fear the enemies of environmental protection laws more than I do rabid environmentalists. I don't even know what an "extreme feminist" is, so I can't fear her. And I certainly don't fear the defenders of civil rights and liberties.

I think the country is in trouble when it ignores science and makes stuff up just to support an economic agenda. The one group of people I fear most, because I think they can do the most harm to the most people, is the religious right.

Separation of church & state just got smaller

A group of clever folks in Arizona who want to use taxpayer money to pay for religious schools have figured out a way to do it legally. The first step was to wait for the Supreme Court to get packed with at least five justices with a sympathetic political philosophy. The second was to set up a system whereby the taxpayer gives the money to an organization that gives the money to a religious school and give the taxpayer a tax credit for his contribution. Since the state did not give the money directly to the religious school, no group like the ACLU or a taxpayer's group has any standing, i.e., no legal right to bring the case to a federal court. Thus, a suit claiming the Arizona law violated the separation clause of the First Amendment was thrown out. It seems the only way to prevent this ruse from happening would be for a state to pass a law or constitutional amendment that prohibits it, but such a law might be found unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. Thus, the door is now open for taxpayers to financially support religious schools and not spend a dime of their own money. All you have to do is give your money to an STO (school tuition organization) and you get a tax credit in the amount given up to whatever limit is set by the state. Never mind that the money being used to support the religious school is money that would have gone to the state in the form of taxes had not the STO been set up.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote the majority opinion (PDF) in the 5-4 case. He also hinted that had the court ruled on the merits of the case they probably wouldn't have overturned the law since it's bad form for the Supreme Court to second-guess state lawmakers. Isn't that what they're supposed to do if the lawmakers pass laws that violate the Constitution?

Now if only secularists would get clever and start private secular schools and STOs.....

Science News

A particle accelerator, the Tevatron, has shown compelling hints of a never-before-seen particle, researchers say. The Tevatron was, until the advent of the LHC, the highest-energy accelerator in the world. The research team was analysing data from collisions between protons and antiprotons. In these collisions, particles known as W bosons are produced, along with a pair of "jets" of other particles. It was in these jets that the unexpected "bump" in the team's data came to light, potentially representing a new particle.

"When you look at the data it's not some disagreement with the Standard Model, it's a nicely formed bump in the distribution that looks really like the kind of bump you'd get if a new particle was being exchanged in this process," said Dan Hooper, a theoretical physicist at Fermilab who was not involved in the research. However, the result is at what is known as the "three-sigma" level of certainty; that means there is still about a tenth of a percent chance that the result is attributable to some statistical fluctuation in the data.

A clever way to sell books: arouse fear and suspicion

Devra Davis is promoting her book that claims cell phones are Devra Daviscausing brain cancer and harming children on a website that juxtaposes her poorly supported claims with some well-established concerns about dangers from asbestos and air pollution. The website is called Environmental Health Trust. At the bottom of her web page she writes: Devra Lee Davis Charitable Foundation is Doing Business As Environmental Health Trust, a registered IRS Public Charity. Maybe I should have started a Public Charity when my book came out. I could have promoted it as the Psychic Health Trust and claimed that superstition and irrational beliefs in magical powers and cures were damaging the brains of our nation's children.

Islamic Brotherhood defies Glenn Beck

Glenn Beck predicted that Egypt would be just one state of many taken over by radical Islamic jihadists. Now Muslim Brotherhood Glenn BeckSupreme Guide Mohamed Badie has invited Coptic Christians to join Freedom and Justice, the new party the Brotherhood intends to establish. I suppose Beck will claim that Badie plans to get the Copts all in one place and then slaughter them.

After I wrote the above paragraph, FOX announced it was shutting down Beck's daily rant about the world coming to an end as part of God's plan. Seems it was hard to get advertisers when the main audience consisted of those waiting for the rapture.

Skeptics, Secularists, & Atheists: Come Together

Next month the Secular Coalition for America meets in Washington, D.C. and the skeptics of northern California meet in Berkeley. I'm scheduled to speak at the Berkeley conference (SkeptiCal 2011), but don't let that put you off. Eugenie Scott headlines the event.

The World Atheist Association will meet in Dublin, Ireland, in June.

Also in June, the Skeptics Society is hosting a Science Symposium featuring Michael Shermer, James Randi, Bill Nye, and Mr. Deity.

The Amazing Meeting will be held in Las Vegas in July.

The CSI/Skeptical Inquirer conference in New Orleans will be held next October. More than 60 speakers have been lined up for the CSI event, including Paul Offit, Ray Hyman, James Randi, Lawrence Krauss, Steve Novella, David Morrison, Edzard Ernst, and Massimo Polidoro.

Scum of the minute

Another multitasking woo-woo artist has been brought to my jill Harrisonattention: Psychic Woman! She specializes in angel readings, tarot readings, and reiki attunements. Jill Harrison calls herself a "world renowned Avatar." Lucky her, she gets messages from archangels. She's the real thing, according to her husband Glenn, who has validated her authenticity.

******

Written by Bob Carroll
with the assistance of John Renish
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